It is with great sadness that we heard recently about the passing of our esteemed friend and colleague, Professor Alan Bull, who has died at the age of 87. The recent obituary by his long-time friend and collaborator Professor Mike Goodfellow in The Guardian captured so much of Alan’s history and career but also highlighted that much of his work was done here in the School of Biosciences. Alan was initially recruited by the founding father of the (then) Biological Laboratory, Professor Ken Stacey in 1970 as part of the initial academic recruitment. While he left for UWIST in 1976, Alan returned to Kent in 1982 as Professor of Microbiology and Head of the Biological Laboratory and remained at Kent as a full-time academic member of the School until 1998, and then as a Research Professor (1998-2003) and Emeritus Professor thereafter.
I first met Alan as a postdoc when coming to work with Professor Chris Knowles in 1989 and it was clear that Alan, along with Chris and Professor Richard Burns, collectively led the biotechnology and environmental microbiology laboratories at Kent, initiating and building the biotechnology focus that remains in the School to this day. They were an engaging group of lab leaders whose research ethos spanned the fundamental to the applied. Alan was always generous with his time, knowledge and network, facilitating introductions to all and allowing the younger graduate students, postdocs and other early career researchers to get involved and forge their own research paths. Many have gone on to have impactful careers across the world. Alan really did believe that science was an international effort and was way ahead of the curve in terms of international environmental collaborative initiatives from Japan to Chile, often hosting visitors from across the globe.
As academics, external research assessments such as REF have provided the impetus to consider the ‘real’ application and impact of our work on the public. Alan never made this distinction and always considered his work holistically, from setting up biotechnology companies to chairing an international OECD panel to discovering new antibiotics… impact was a cornerstone in all that he did. Here at Kent, Alan set up the International Institute of Biotechnology (in collaboration with University College London and the Polytechnic of Central London) in 1983. Additionally, the 2019 Queens Anniversary Prize-winning Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) was founded by Alan and Professor Ian Swingland in 1989 as an example of Alan’s commitment to wider issues of biological conservation.
It would be remiss of me not to mention Alan’s inspirational enthusiasm across a wide raft of subjects. As a teacher for many years, I am well aware that to inspire the next generation of scientists there is not a ‘one size fits all’ formula, but requires a complex mixture of enthusiasm, knowledge, insight and experience. Alan had this in spades and I saw and benefitted from it firsthand. I am honest enough to know that I could never emulate it, whether as a scientist or as the polymath that Alan was. From the laboratory to the golf course, you will be missed and we in the School of Biosciences and the wider University of Kent send our sincerest condolences to Jenny and family.
Dr Gary Robinson
17 July 2023